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The deal reached in Congress to avoid a government shutdown produced a largely overlooked casualty: an Interior Department policy to reinstate the authority of the Bureau of Land Management to designate wilderness study areas.

The agreement among Democrats, Republicans and the White House deleted funding needed by the BLM to do the inventory work on wilderness-quality lands in the West. That's a gigantic leap backward for public land policy and a betrayal of President Barack Obama's promise to protect open spaces, water and wildlife from rampant drilling on public lands.

The policy announced this year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did not plow new ground. It was a reinstatement of legal authority granted years ago by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which was overridden by a legally suspect agreement in 2003 between then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Bush Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Salazar rightly overturned that agreement. The new policy says the BLM can inventory lands for wilderness quality and then seek permanent protection for them.

The BLM in Utah reported that 4.8 million acres in the Beehive State were designated as having wilderness characteristics by the pre-Norton Interior Department.

Some members of Congress, including all of Utah's, were irate that it could become easier for the BLM to protect lands that are obviously deserving of protection because of their scenic beauty, opportunities for quiet recreation, value as watershed and cultural treasures. It's true, as critics have said, that only Congress can designate wilderness. But part of the BLM's traditional role has long been to provide a form of protection until Congress can act.

The critics' claim that Salazar's policy change is illegal has little validity. Fifty-five teachers of natural resources law from various universities, including the University of Utah, wrote a letter to Interior pointing out that under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that governs the BLM, the agency has authority to create wilderness study areas.

They wrote that the law requires the Secretary of the Interior to maintain an inventory of public lands, giving priority to areas of critical environmental concern, and "to manage them as not to impair their suitability for preservation by Congress as wilderness."

BLM protections are necessary. If those wilderness-quality areas are not saved from uncontrolled all-terrain-vehicle use, drilling and other energy development, the damage will be irreversible.